The One Big Question Settled by the Russia Indictment

The charges unsealed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller are unequivocal about Russian efforts to help Donald Trump become president.

David Shepardson / Reuters

Shortly after his unexpected victory in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump told Time in an interview that Russia had not interfered in the 2016 election.

“I don’t believe they interfered. That became a laughing point; not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say ‘Oh, Russia interfered,’” Trump said. “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

Over the past year, Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, and the federal investigation into that interference and the possibility that the Trump campaign had abetted it, have been a sore spot for the president. He’s called the Russia investigation a “hoax,” a “political witch hunt” and “fake news.” He said it was a “joke,” a “ruse,” and “phony.” “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign,” Trump insisted. Even after January of 2017, when American intelligence agencies released a report concluding that Russia had interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf, both the president and his allies continued to insist that the story was untrue. In his confirmation hearing to be attorney general, Jeff Sessions would not even acknowledge that Russia had interfered. “I have done no research into that. I know just what the media says about it,” Sessions testified.

Trump allies weren’t the only ones expressing skepticism over the Russia story. “There has been a very extreme dearth of evidence to actually support the claims that have come from the U.S. government,” the journalist Glenn Greenwald told Democracy Now in January of 2017. “Unfortunately, there is very little skepticism being applied to the agencies that have repeatedly misled and deceived and lied to the American public.”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals associated with the Internet Research Agency, better known as the Russian “Troll Farm,” on charges related to interfering with the 2016 election, leaves little doubt as to the Kremlin’s intentions. Originally, the operation was meant to spread distrust “towards the candidates and the political system in general.” By “early to mid-2016,” the indictment reads, “Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump” and “disparaging Hillary Clinton.” The indictment describes a Russian operation that was essentially a Super PAC operating on Trump’s behalf, one that “employed hundreds of individuals” with an annual budget of “the equivalent of millions of U.S. dollars,” more precisely, $1.2 million per month by September 2016.  Separately, the special counsel’s office announced that an American citizen had pled guilty to facilitating payments through stolen identities.

The indictment alleges that the Russians stole Americans’ identities, purchased political ads, attempted to organize rallies, and operated social-media accounts designed to inflame racial and sectarian tensions in the U.S. A document cited in the indictment as guidance distributed to the operatives instructed them to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”

The indictment makes no claim of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian effort. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said during a press conference Friday. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charge conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

Both of Rosenstein’s observations have a key caveat: that this indictment does not make either allegation does not preclude future indictments from doing so.

Some of the initial skepticism towards the intelligence community’s conclusions about Russian interference was understandable, and offered in good faith. After all, as the Iraq War shows, American spies are not infallible. People make mistakes. And sometimes, representatives of U.S. intelligence agencies simply lie to the American people.

By the same token, it’s perilous to draw  broad conclusions about the Troll Farm’s impact based on the indictment alone. The detailed indictment unsealed by Mueller, with internal messages from the Troll Farm, descriptions of specific bank accounts used, ads purchased, and social-media accounts deployed, does not speak to the effectiveness of the Troll Farm’s methods. American bigotry and intolerance are not products of foreign interference. It’s possible that these efforts played a key role in delivering to Trump the few crucial votes in battleground states that led to his election; it’s possible that they had no effect at all, or even that they backfired. But the indictment itself makes no claims on that question.

Although the indictment does not speak to effectiveness, it does speak to intent. Mueller and his team will have to substantiate the indictment’s claims in court; for now, they are the assertions of prosecutors, and the defendants are entitled to a presumption of innocence. But the details that Mueller offers, corroborating previous reports, should settle a related question in the court of public opinion: That Russia attempted to interfere in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf has been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.